Hennessy New Irish Writing winning story: September 2017
Inside by Maeve O’Lynn
Her soup could have been hotter. It needed salt. It would definitely have tasted better if served in something other than a Styrofoam cup. Everything tasted strange at the minute, though – new. Staff canteens, however, were the same, whether in the supermarket she’d worked in as a student, or the accountancy firm she’d temped in as a receptionist when she’d first moved to London, or now here, in the digital media agency she’d “been with” – relationship status: complicated – for the last two years. Job titles evolved, cities changed, canteens stayed relentlessly the same. There was both a comfort and a dull, echoing boredom in that thought.
“So will we meet at the front about five, then?”
Christine looked up. Plans were, apparently, being put in motion, while she was contemplating her tepid soup.
“At five?” she stalled. She glanced towards the window, its view of other, identical buildings and their other, identical canteens and upwards, towards its rectangle of immutable, heavy, slate-grey sky.
“For the Brexit demo. What is everyone bringing?” Paul continued, directing his words to the table, but looking steadily at Christine. She shouldn’t have gone back to his place after that night out a couple of months ago. It meant nothing. Harmless fun. But there was nothing fun about his continued attention, like if he looked at her long enough he thought she would fall at his feet. Keep dreaming, mate.
“Well, we’ll need signs, of course. Hannah is making some up, so I’ll get her to do us some more. Maybe we should laminate, it looks like rain.”
People said stupid things like, “Eskimos have a hundred words for snow”. Inuit is the preferred term and most of those so-called snow words actually described the melting process. The Irish, however, did have a lot of words for rain. Drizzlin. Mizzlin. Lashin. Pishin. Teemin. Pourin. Wee skiff. Heavy downpour. Just a shower. Did that make Christine a connoisseur of precipitation?
Paul was wrong.
It didn’t look like rain.
“Safety pins, too. People are wearing them. To show solidarity.”
“Yeah. Solidarity,” Paul intoned.
Solidarity indeed. A real man of the people, Paul. Christine said nothing. She checked her phone. Lunch hour was nearly up. She let herself zone out, give in to a wave of tiredness and be carried along by the hum of arrangements and chatter, as if it was a party they were all planning to attend and not a political protest. Safely back at her Scandinavian-designed ergo-desk, she stowed her bag at her feet, assiduously switched her double-width computer monitor back on and pulled up a document to start editing before anyone could ask her about anything else.
The lack of rain notwithstanding, she felt like she was drowning and maybe like she wanted to scream. Or throw up. She wasn’t sure which. From across the office she could still feel the weighty study of Paul’s eyes on her back.
Today’s assignment. Advertorial, pure and simple. There was something about her job she found ultimately distasteful. Dressing up sales pitches for some pretty trivial products in the guise of glossy, paid-for supplements, designed to lull readers into a false sense of security so they would let their guards down and be receptive to the advertising underneath. It was manipulative. On another level, though, Christine appreciated the crisp clarity of her brief. Write about celebrities who have undergone huge body transformations in 2017. Speculate about the newest fitness crazes/superfoods/lifestyle products for 2018. Then hit the reader up with a sales pitch for joining an exclusive fitness chain, showcasing their swimming pools, cold-pressed smoothie bars, paleo meals tailored to your macros and served à la carte and ubiquitous floating yoga classes. The perfect gig for an English graduate. No room for artistic integrity or stylised prose here. No need for hesitation.
And so she wrote, fingers skimming the chrome-brushed keys, occasionally consulting Google for ideas on which centrifugal juicer was most apposite.
Her phone rumbled, on vibrate, from her bag, at her feet. Christine considered ignoring it, certain she could not control her reaction if it was a message about what size of safety pin to wear later, but decided against it. She fumbled through the pockets in her bag, past coffee store loyalty cards, a Nars blusher, a raw food bar, the keys to her flat, her alpaca wool gloves, until she found it. The number was unknown. They had left a voicemail.
She pushed her chair back from her desk. She put on her shawl-collared wool coat, lifted her bag and left. Crossing the office, she knew Paul was watching. She heard others mumble. But she kept going, past the lifts, down the stairs, through the doors and out onto the street with the bruised sky overhead. Still no rain. Good news for her wool coat. She really needed to check the TfL app on her phone. She had no idea how to get where she was going. But if she stopped, even for a minute, she would lose momentum so on she went, past the bus stop and into the tube station, making her best guess as to which direction she was going in and where she would need to change. The sickly yellow glare of the lighting helped.
It had been nineteen years. Nineteen years of wondering. Worrying. Fearing and expecting the worst. Sometimes half forgetting. And then wondering again. So the cycle repeated.
He was her father, though it wasn’t a word she’d ever said aloud. Daddy. Da.
He’d been inside when Christine was born. Inside, they called it. She remembered going on the minibus with her ma, and her two older brothers, and all the other families, for the once-a-month visit. Being searched going in. Clinging to her ma’s hand. Joe and Micky strangely subdued.
And then he was out again. But out wasn’t really the right word for it. It was like getting out of prison was only the start of another sentence. He didn’t like the streets. His head wasn’t right. He wasn’t the only one, her ma would say. But he turned away help that was offered from any quarter. He wasn’t interested in community work or consulting on the ceasefire or, later, the peace process. He didn’t want anything to do with prisoners’ rights, education or art projects. What he wanted to do, or so it seemed, was to sit in the livingroom, drink tea and smoke. The TV was usually on. He usually wasn’t watching it. But he’d sit there long into the night, on his own, before crawling into bed about four in the morning and then doing it all again the next day. And again. And again.
Standing on the platform, two minutes until the next train arrived, Christine glanced at her phone. Two emoji-laden WhatsApp messages from Hannah and Fiona about the demo later. A text – emojis being beneath his ever-present sense of dignity – from Paul, asking if she was ok. Subtext – where are you? What could possibly be more important than marching with a fervent posse of marketeers with dreams of doing something more worthwhile, to lay a bouquet of European flags? No signal bars on her phone; she couldn’t reply even if she wanted to. She didn’t want to. She felt ill and she needed to pee. She dropped her phone back in her pocket, withdrawing.
Christine had watched her brothers withdraw. They couldn’t reconcile the gaunt, hunched figure in the livingroom with the other Das on the street, the ones who taught their kids to ride bikes, who drove taxis, who brought home fish suppers on a Friday, who played football in the park.
Then she watched her ma withdraw. Looking back, she could understand it; this wasn’t exactly what she had signed up for after all. A husband inside, three young kids to raise, with only the bru and the Prisoners’ Defence Fund to feed them. And then he’s out, but he’s changed. He won’t work. He won’t socialise. He won’t accept any help on offer. He won’t even look at her. And her only 31. That’s no life.
At the time Christine was furious, though. She was only nine, but she knew what was going on. She and her brothers staying with her Granny at the weekends. Her ma out with her friends. Her da, missing in action, but still sitting, forever sitting, on his own in the house, hardly noticing that she and the boys and his own wife weren’t there.
It was only a matter of time. As big of a big man as her da had been, there were bigger men. He’d been inside. Well so what? He and hundreds more. And they weren’t all sitting in their livingrooms, blinds drawn, afraid of the daylight. One day her ma sent her and her brothers down to the park. They didn’t want to take her, what would their mates say if they showed up with a wee girl in tow, but her ma put the foot down and that was that. When they came back, half frozen and ready for their tea, he was gone. Like he’d never been there at all. Ashtrays were emptied, windows opened, his clothes gone from the cupboard.
He was away to get work, her ma said. Or sometimes, he was away to get better. Or visiting friends. Well, which was it, Christine wanted to shout. But it didn’t matter. Because he never came back. And after a while Marty moved in. She and the boys half wanted to hate him. But he drove a taxi. And he loved football. And he had a wee dog. And he always bought them chips and tins of Coke on a Friday. And their ma was happy. And then Christine had a wee sister. And after a while they all kind of just forgot to ask.
But one day, nearly two years later, when she was in town with her friends she’d seen him. Wrapped in a sleeping bag on Royal Avenue. Christine felt sick with the shock of it. And the shame of it. She hadn’t gone to speak to him. She doubted he would have noticed if she had. His eyes were as vacant and far away as ever.
It had taken her a long time, but she’d finally got the courage last Christmas to walk down the Whiterock and into Ballymurphy and rap on her uncle’s door. He wasn’t friendly. She didn’t expect him to be. Sure wasn’t her ma the one who’d put his poor brave patriot of a brother onto the streets. Never mind he could have taken him. Still, Christine expected the hostility. What she hadn’t expected was that Uncle Eamon wouldn’t have the slightest clue as to where her da might be or what he was doing or what might have happened him. Except he was maybe in London. She could have laughed at the irony of it. There she was, building up her courage to go round to Eamon’s house to ask when all this time she and her da were living in the same city.
So she’d started trying to track him down. She didn’t mention it to her ma and Marty. She’d tried talking to Joe and Micky but they weren’t interested. But now she had an address. Sheltered housing. And she was going to see him, whether or not he was much interested in seeing her, whether or not he even remembered or cared that he had a daughter. Even if she missed her chance to stand with her colleagues in copywriting to say We Love EU and No Man is an Island. To leave their corporate holding tank, and hold a sign in solidarity.
She’d walked past him on Royal Avenue but she wasn’t going to do it again. Not now that she would soon have her own child, with a father likely little more than a question mark, and Christine an outsider, still, in a city and a country that may soon itself be outside; Brexited.
She pulled out her phone and consulted her app. Forty minutes ETA and a change coming up. Nineteen years of silence. It was time to get off the train.
Maeve O’Lynn completed her PhD on Gender and Genre in NI Fiction at Ulster University in 2011. As a writer and researcher, her primary interests have been liminality, transition and the unheimlich. Maeve has published work in Fortnight, Estudios Irlandeses, Honest Ulsterman and The Stinging Fly. She is one half of McGibbon O’Lynn, whose latest interdisciplinary work will be shown at TULCA Festival of Visual Arts in Galway in November.